Archive for May, 2015|Monthly archive page

Silver linings

So many good Christians withdraw from active church life because of conflict.

I sympathize with them – it is disillusioning when fellow believers fight.

Yet I believe we can grow as we face up to disagreements.  The key is to learn from these battles – learn to handle differences the Jesus way.

I have wrestled with conflict both in my work life and in my time as a church member and leader.  In each case, I have learned something I could have done better.

As believers, we are called to be truthful, but gentle and kind.  We are to be encouraging and build up people rather than tearing them down.

Jesus was truthful – and even sometimes tough – when dealing with wrongdoing. He rebuked Pharisees who were building themselves up at the expense of the people and leading them away from true worship of God.

But with people who seemed lost, he was gentle, engaging them in conversations and trying to get them to see what the kingdom of God – his loving kingdom – was all about.  He spent time with them, healed them, and loved them.

When his followers argued about who would be greatest among them, Jesus told them firmly what real leadership is all about in his kingdom – serving others.  That is how we Christians should treat each other – not trying to beat down someone who has a different opinion.

The apostle Paul had to deal with angry disputes in the churches he created and visited.  He was adamant on spiritual issues which were fundamental to the Christian faith.  But he counseled the young churches not to fight over personalities or peripheral concerns.

What strikes me about Paul is that he did not give up because of the harsh words – and lies – that were hurled at him.  He felt his mission was too important – to bring people into an everlasting relationship with Jesus.

As for himself, he was convinced that he and the rest of us believers are to become more like Jesus as we navigate the crises of life.  Trouble should make us more like Christ – not less.

So, to pick up on a popular phrase, there are silver linings to the clouds of conflict.

But, we will only see them if we remain active in Christ’s service.

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You are worthy

I have three friends who have the same problem – they feel they are unworthy of God.

One of them feels God can’t love him because he has sinned too seriously.  Another is filled with regrets about something he said to a girl 60 years ago.  Still another feels God can’t forgive him because of a bad decision he made a decade ago.

In each case, they find themselves struggling with accepting the grace of God.

I love the way Alan D. Wright, pastor and author of Shame Off You, responds to people like that.  He says we are undeserving of God’s grace, but not unworthy.  We have infinite “worth” in God’s eyes.

Wright, pastor of Reynolda Presbyterian Church in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, spent years feeling shame after the breakup of his parents’ marriage when he was a child.  That is often the case with children in divorces – they feel they are responsible for their parents splitting apart.

He reacted by trying to prove himself to others and trying his utmost to be liked.  He set very high standards of performance for himself.  He did very well academically.

I had good, affirming parents and have been blessed by a loving wife.  But, for different reasons, I have also wrestled with feelings of unworthiness.

Why is that?  It flows from a misunderstanding of God.

We Christians put our faith in God because we accept that Jesus died for our sins and offers us everlasting life.  But often we continue trying to prove to God that we deserve to be in heaven.  And, if we’re honest with ourselves, we realize we just can’t do it on our own.

As Wright pointed out in a recent sermon, we don’t deserve to be with God, but we are loved so much by him that he sent his son Jesus to die for us.  Why?  Because we are worth that much to him.

We need to rest in his love – his mercy and grace.  We need to respond to his grace by loving him.

We need to let him have his way with us.

We need to stop struggling and start following.

Seed

I have been busy attacking our lawn with grass seed this spring – my annual battle against ever-present bald spots.

It makes me think about the amazing power of little seeds and the resistance of certain types of ground.

Jesus spoke about this, too, in his well-known story of the seed-sower throwing seed on different kinds of ground (Luke 13:3-23).  He was making a point: the word of God will bear fruit in some lives and not in others.

But it strikes me you can’t rule out the power of God’s word working in the lives of people who seem opposed to the things of God. God can do the impossible in our eyes.

I am astonished at how plants and trees can grow in rocky clefts.  There is a pine tree growing in what looks like sheer Canadian Pre-Cambrian shield rock in our back yard.  There is a slight crack in the rock and a seed found just enough dirt there to grow.

In the same way, there are many people over the ages who seemed impervious to the word of God and yet surrendered their lives to him.

One such man was Augustine, a North African who became one of the greatest Christian leaders and authors.  If I had known Augustine as a young man, I would not have believed he would become a believer.

He was a brilliant philosopher and speaker whose aim was to win fame in the Roman Empire in the fourth century A.D.  He was a self-centred young man, able to defeat opponents easily in debate.

But the Spirit of God was working in his heart.  And he began exploring the Christian faith, the faith of his mother Monica.  His mother had been praying for him for years and yet he had rejected her beliefs.

He was sitting in a garden with the scriptures in his hand when he heard a child’s voice call out: “Take up and read!”  He read a passage in the book of Romans and gave his life to God.

God infused life into tiny seeds so that they grow when watered in soil.  Similarly, God infused life through his Spirit into the words of scripture so that they take root in our hearts and minds.

Jesus’ story of the farmer and the seed in Matthew 13 is correct – the ground may not be right in many people’s lives to accept God’s word.  But we, as believers, cannot make that judgement.

We may be surprised to find that the rocky ground in a loved one’s heart is ready to accept the seed of God’s word and flourish.

Ordinary woman, extraordinary faith

I’m sure no one in Nazareth would have predicted young Mary would be mother of the Messiah.

But God chose her to bear Jesus.

What did he see in her?  Faith.

Mary was ordinary. Nothing in the scriptures speaks of her as being particularly brilliant or accomplished.

But her faith was extraordinary.

I think of Mary as we are on the doorstep of Mother’s Day.  Mothers have a formative influence on children and God knew that as he selected Mary to be Jesus’ mother.

There is not much about Mary in the New Testament, but what is there paints a picture of her as a woman totally committed to her son, trusting him and the Father even when she was bewildered by what was going on.

Her first encounter with the angel Gabriel in Luke 1 is wonderful – I can’t help but rejoice at the way she responded to this terrifying appearance and news.  He tells her that she will bear the son of God even though she is engaged to be married to the carpenter Joseph.  The Holy Spirit will plant the seed.

Mary responded: “I am the Lord’s servant.  May everything you have said about me come true.”

That simple acceptance that what God has said is trustworthy continued to mark her life.

When Jesus was 12, he went with his family to the Passover celebrations at the temple in Jerusalem.  He stayed behind when his extended family left and discussed spiritual things with the temple leaders (Luke 2).  When his parents discovered he wasn’t with them, they returned to the temple and reprimanded him for not accompanying them and worrying them.

His reply: “But why did you need to search?  Didn’t you know that I must be in my Father’s house?”

Luke says Jesus’ mother stored all these things in her heart.  Others in Nazareth didn’t think much of Jesus – he was just the carpenter’s son.  But Mary knew he was more than that.

In John 2, Mary plays a very interesting role in Jesus’ first miracle – converting water into wine at a wedding feast in Cana.

She goes to Jesus to tell him that the hosts have no more wine.  That’s embarrassing, but Jesus says that’s not his problem.  Yet, Mary tells the servants: “Do whatever he tells you.”

Clearly, her mother’s heart told her that Jesus would help out his friends.  And she knew he would do something out of the ordinary.

And Jesus, the loving son, asks the servants to fill the wine jars with water.  The result is wine – a miracle.

Jesus’ bond with his mother was strong.  Even in the midst of excruciating pain, he tells his disciple John to care for his mother who is standing watching him in the final throes of death.

I can only imagine how terrible it was for Mary to see her son abused, cursed, scorned and then brutally nailed to a cross.  Any mother would have been heart-broken in a similar situation.

But I can also picture her joy when she and the disciples and followers of Jesus saw him after he rose from the dead.  What a vindication of the trust and faith she had placed in God and her son Jesus.

As believers, we can learn a great deal about faith by looking at Mary, an ordinary woman.

Grateful or forgetful?

Imagine the joy and excitement of the rescuers who found a 15-year-old boy alive under the rubble of a building five days after the recent earthquake in Nepal.

Imagine the even greater wonder of the disciples who saw Jesus alive days after they had seen him die on the cross 2000 years ago.

But time can steal that feeling of gratitude.  Perhaps it resurfaces from time to time – but it is not lasting.  The memories grow dim.

It makes me wonder whether the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus has lost its allure for many of us believers.  Do other things – the everyday pressures of life – push the good news of Jesus into the shadows of our minds and hearts?

I confess it often does for me.

A friend of mine says he preaches the gospel to himself every day to keep the good news alive and fresh.  It’s something recommended by such authors as Jerry Bridges and John Piper.

Why is this important?

It’s important because it reminds us why we are here and where we are going.  It reminds us what really matters in life.

Jesus promised us trouble in this life.  We cannot escape illness, grief, job problems, the death of loved ones.

But he also promised us the joy of being with him forever if we choose to follow him.  He promised us his strength and his help in facing the problems of the moment.  He promised us his presence and his everlasting love.

He offers us joy – an inner joy – that is greater than happiness.

Why should the good news of Jesus mean so much?  Think of it for a moment: God wanted so much to have a loving relationship with you and me that he sent his son Jesus to take our sins on himself and pay the price in our place.  There is no greater gift than that.

Without this action by Jesus, we would have no future with a loving God after our physical death.

While we are on earth, we are being prepared for a time of everlasting peace and joy with God.  We will speak with him, laugh with him, enjoy him in the life to come.

Keeping the good news of Jesus in front of us helps to put the everyday problems of life into perspective.  In time, these earthly problems will pass.

But we can be grateful – now and always – for belonging to Jesus.